The morning after the Liberals won another majority government in Nova Scotia, a headline on the website read: “Nova Scotia teachers 'worried about the next 4 years' under Liberals.” And no doubt other Nova Scotians have similar concerns: what can we expect from the new government when it comes to teachers, but also when it comes to students, families, and communities? Liette Doucet, President of the Nova Scotia Teachers’ Union, expressed her trepidation: “I am willing to work with government — always…The question is: will the government be prepared to work with us?"
It’s a fair question. After all, the established relationship between NSTU and the government is marked by the marginalization of concerns teachers raised during negotiations, in the streets, and in law amendments; a work to rule campaign and a one-day strike following the government’s decision to close schools; and an imposed contract that forced teachers to end their job action.
The imposed contract is particularly troubling. Every day unions reach tentative agreements with employers after going through collective bargaining, which is predicated on both sides presenting proposals and a few rounds of back-and-forth before a contract is ratified by union members. What does not work is restricted collective bargaining. When the employer ultimately holds the power to force a contract (and ultimately does), how can healthy compromise actually happen?
To attack unions is to threaten the only collective workers’ voice that helps balance a fundamentally unbalanced power relationship between employers and those they employ. It is an attack on the most important vehicle for employees to express concerns about their working conditions—and, when it comes to education, teachers’ working conditions are our children’s learning conditions.
Nova Scotians across employment sectors are rightfully concerned about their lack of wage increases, but freezing the wages of another group of workers doesn’t help them, and could hinder everybody’s ability to get the services that they need. The undervaluing of teachers’ contributions (75% of whom are women) to the education system and to society more generally is a cause for concern for worker recruitment and retention, and the provision of all public services across this province.
The reality is that the re-election of a governing party with the same leader will mean continuity, which obviously some people voted for — though that the Liberals received a majority mandate with 39.7% of the popular vote (of the 53.55% of the voting electorate) underscores the need for electoral reform in the province, and moreover, serious reflection on roots of disengagement.
However, the tone of governance may change especially given that it no longer has the deficit to use as an excuse for continued austerity, since the wage freezes produced the surplus tabled in the budget. Debt hysteria and the mantra of fiscal restraint do, nevertheless, remain effective tools for governments of all political stripes who want to pursue cost-cutting priorities.
We already know what the next year looks like in terms of investments in education because the budget (tabled in April and soon to be re-tabled) did include money for a limited (and insufficient) number of teachers, new school psychologists and speech-language pathologists, further expansion of reading recovery programs, and a province-wide breakfast program.
Some of these investments sidestep the real problems in the education system and early learning and early interventions, but also in our society. Probably the most obvious are the challenges faced by children as a result of family and child poverty. Those on income assistance will not see any additional assistance this year as the government continues to transform the system. And a small reduction in taxes payable is really no help especially for those whose income is so low they already pay no tax.
The demands on and expectations of teachers are higher than ever, while their ability to meet them is constrained by additional — often administrative — data gathering or inputting tasks. The work to rule campaign effectively highlighted just how much unpaid work teachers do that is not part of their contract but yet is still essential to the functioning of our schools, including coaching and school trips, that take place outside of the classroom. At the same time, there has been a lack of meaningful consultation with teachers as professionals about the changes that they know are necessary, and how to make them.
Throughout the election campaign, Nova Scotians were reassured by the Liberals that we could now enjoy the fruits of our sacrifice. But we will need to pay close attention to whose sacrifice will be rewarded and what fruits they will actually ‘enjoy’ over the life of this new government.
This commentary will also appear in the upcoming spring/summer 2017 issue of Our Schools / Our Selves which focuses on the Nova Scotia teachers' strike.